2007 - 2022

Modest Proposals

daniel-oconnell_resizeBy Gavin Falconer

One of the results of the independence referendum is that it makes all of us, whether we like it or not, gradualists. Nearly all of you reading this will believe in the removal of Trident and in an end to elective wars against far-flung peoples; most of you also in a Scots republic with an elected head of state. None of those things will be happening in the near future.

That’s not to say that there are not interesting times ahead. Over the next few months and years there will be a struggle to devolve as much power as possible to Scotland, with the erstwhile Yes campaign on one side of the argument and the Westminster establishment on the other. The Conservatives will be keen to keep as much of Scotland’s oil income as they can in order to pass it on to their plutocrat friends in the form of tax cuts. The Labour Party will wish to retain its Scottish MPs as House of Commons lobby fodder, and those MPs will be happy to deploy esoteric arguments about the indispensable role of an increasingly attenuated pan-British welfare system in order to keep their snouts in the trough.

Deprived of its major weapon of an independence referendum, the Yes campaign will have to use alternative tactics: electoral pressure, yes; but also arguing from inside the system. Recently I read a biography of Daniel O’Connell, the great nineteenth-century Irish politician who delivered “Catholic emancipation”, the right of Catholics to sit in the Commons, but failed in his attempts to achieve the repeal of the Union with Ireland Act 1800. O’Connell was a wily barrister and always keen to remain on the right side of the law, even if it meant calling off unjustly banned events, disbanding his own organisation or meekly yielding to the indignity of a rigged show trial. He was also famed for his “monster meetings”, each attended by upwards of 100,000 people, which while peaceful carried with them an implied threat of mass action. The mass action that the Yes campaign can threaten is a second referendum, but only if it thinks it can win one. The coming period will therefore see a race to convince the public of the justice or injustice of the forthcoming devolution proposals.

Much has been made already of the circumstances in which another referendum might be called, one scenario being that England might vote to leave the EU but Scotland to stay in it. There is no guarantee, however, that the English will vote to leave, since presumably businesspeople and workers whose livelihoods depend on membership will campaign strongly to remain, as will many trades unions, whose attitude to the EU has been transformed since 1975. A second referendum may therefore depend on winning an argument about devolution, and since the “devo super-max” promised by Better Together is likely to be a lukewarm poultice rather than an out-and-out slap in the face, there is no guarantee of that either. Depending on how the likelihood of calling a referendum is phrased in the SNP manifesto, Westminster may refuse to play ball too, meaning that it would have to be held on an advisory basis. One obvious argument that the establishment would use against us is that the same question had been decided upon so recently.

There is an alternative route, however.

Devo max as those who actually study such things understand it is very similar to the position enjoyed by the Isle of Man, which through the Tynwald deals with everything save defence and foreign affairs. Putting to the people the question of whether Scotland should become a self-governing crown dependency is clearly very different from asking whether Scotland should become an independent country, so there could be no question of denying a referendum on democratic grounds. The issue of access to EU markets would be neutralised; the Isle of Man has full access for goods, and anyone with a British grandparent has access as a worker. In fact, we would even have our own passports.[1] Another advantage is that, because there is already a territory with the status in question, everyone will be clear on what it means, and that it is a practical proposition. As we have seen, “devo max” can mean different things to different people, sometimes out of sheer badness, but more often out of ignorance or genuine disagreement. At times it can be like wrestling jelly.

And there is a precedent for a second referendum on a different question. In 1995, Quebec came very close to accepting a question on “sovereignty-association”. With luck, Scotland could do the same — and we got more support the first time round than Quebec.

The knock-on effects of crown dependency status would include losing Scots representation in the House of Commons and therefore what marginal — in fact, more or less illusory — influence we have on defence and foreign affairs. In my view, that loss would be more than compensated for by the competences and revenue streams accruing to a crown-dependent Scotland, which of course include the ability to set up an oil fund. According to mysociety.org, only 21 divisions out of the thousands since the Labour victory of 1997 would have gone differently if Scots MPs had been unable to participate, and some of those votes were on purely English issues.[2] In the 1997-2001 Parliament, there would have been none at all.

The fact that there would no longer be any Scots MPs at Westminster would also mean that there would be no high-profile establishment politicians protecting their vested interest against the common weal by arguing against independence when — as will surely happen — the substantive question is put to the people again. The absurdities of crown-dependency status are many, including the lack of power over foreign affairs, but, like “English votes for English issues”, they are ultimately also arguments for full independence.

Another benefit of asking a question on crown-dependency status is that it to some extent circumvents Westminster by making a direct and highly embarrassing appeal to the monarch. Obviously, that is a distasteful tactic for democrats, but the Queen, who, purring aside, is supposed to be neutral, would find it harder to face down the democratic will of the people than the Tories and Labour are at the moment.

And, of course, it might never come to that, since Westminster could simply buckle under the pressure. A manifesto commitment to a referendum on crown-dependency status, effectively devo max + 1, may be the best weapon the Yes parties have to achieve devo max itself — and, probably quite soon afterwards, the independent republic that the people of Scotland deserve.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manx_passport

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  1. bringiton says:

    You don’t need devo anything to set up an oil fund…..Shetland.

    1. Revenues from North Sea oil go to the UK treasury, so we missed out on that with the No vote.

      Shetland charitable trust comes from the oil industry direct to compensate for Sullum Voe terminal, is my understanding.

      With Yes vote, the oil fund would be getting set up by now.

      1. Crabbit says:

        Scottish public spending would still be in deficit even with the tax from oil. So to set up an oil fund, the government would have to borrow from the markets to get the money to invest. Governments (if they’re considered to be good risks) get better borrowing terms than private borrowers, but it still wouldn’t make financial sense.

        The GERS report has Scottish public revenue, including a geographic share of oil, as £54 billion. Total Scottish-related public expenditure at £66.4 billion, so a deficit of £16 billion which has to be borrowed for.

        (Or taxes increased, or services cut, or in the longer-term, the private sector grows more strongly)

        1. Alan Weir says:

          You assume, in assuming there is this deficit, that though Scotland, under FFA, will pay £3-4 billion a year to the (fiscally autonomous) UK in debt interest, though there is no legal, only a moral, liability to do so- it’s not a commercial arrangement between autonomous domains- nonetheless the UK will not honour its commitment made in the run up to the referendum to, in effect, cover any deficit (the ‘union dividend’, costed at around £10 billion on oil prices then, £7 billion net of the interest payment in the other direction). Holding the UK’s feet to the fire on this moral obligation would remove virtually all the supposed deficit (and be partial compensation for the massive mis-sold investment scam which was North Sea Oil).

        2. Dave McEwan Hill says:

          So 300 years of the union has been a disaster for Scotland and its economy? I agree.

          Actually figures extrapolated from a Scotland trapped in a virtually bankrupt UK economy are entirely irrelevant and would have little relationship to how an independent Scotland would run its economy.

          That’s why we want to be independent. We need to get off the Titanic

  2. Crabbit says:

    There is precedent, but it is more as a self-governing dominion, rather than a dependency. Effectively self-governing. Canada went down this route as did Ireland.

    They were economically independent too, with their own fiscal policy and own currencies.

    (and indeed, as the Isle of Man has)

  3. richardcain2 says:

    While this may be a practical and possible route, it will likely stick in the craw of a great many people, particularly staunch republicans.

    One benefit of last year’s Referendum is that it has cemented the notion (at least in the public consciousness) that sovereignty rests with the people of Scotland; even if they have chosen not to assume the responsibility just yet. This is a moral high-ground which must not be lost.

    Applying for Crown Dependency (or equivalent) status would be seen as a formal relinquishing of sovereignty to the Crown; thus passing our control of our future out of our hands and admitting that we are unfit to stand on our own two feet.

    1. muttley79 says:

      Opinion polls show that in Scotland the royal family is still fairly popular. I am a republican, but I think some elements of Yes have convinced themselves that the majority of people in Scotland are left wing, anti-monarchy, anti-Nato etc. The polls have consistently shown this to be false. The radical element of Scottish political life has for decades been overemphasising the degree of support they have. Anything that goes against this mind set is usually dismissed. I think the majority of people of Scotland are much more pragmatic in their politics than the what many on the Left believe.

      It seems to me the pragmatic, gradualist view of the SNP has been the most successful strategy by far in gaining more and more Scottish autonomy. I would rather Holyrood takes on powers over welfare, taxation, energy, broadcasting etc, than reject it because of the Crown Dependency issue. After all, the Irish Free State became the Irish Republic in time. If you genuinely want and support change, why put up barriers and pre-conditions to it happening?

      1. richardcain2 says:

        I’m not saying I’m completely against this suggestion, merely that it is the first time (to my knowledge) that it has been raised, and we need to consider the proposition very carefully to ensure there are no unintended undesirable consequences.

        One of the biggest drivers for me is to make our country fairer and more democratic. Independence is a tool for that. Is taking our future out of the hands of 1,000-odd people we didn’t vote for and putting it in the hands of one person we didn’t vote for a step in the right direction or not?

  4. emilytom67 says:

    Why can,t we print our own money? isn,t that what Broonie and his Darling did,and where did the almost 1 trillion go??We have to set up our own bank and cut loose from the Rothschild corrupt hegemony,very risky because everyone that has tried to break this stranglehold has finished up dead.

  5. Anonymous says:

    As Crabbit has said we tend to tie ourselves in knots talking about “crown dependencies” (which conjur images of tiny island provinces) when in fact the closest equivalent would be something like the Irish Free State, or a Dominion. Dominion status, or “Commonwealth/Commonweal” status or something is what I’d be campaigning for.

    It should be noted that the Dominions of the Empire were separate signatories to the Treaty of Versailles – we’d be much closer to Barr (Motherwell) MP’s 1920s ILP proposal for devolution where foreign affairs and defence were a “shared issue”, not entirely reserved to the UK government.

  6. Anton says:

    The idea of Scotland becoming a Crown Dependency is an interesting and potentially attractive idea, and not something I’ve previously seen suggested.

    As Gavin Falconer points out, one of the great advantages would be precedent – that is, it’s a model which has been proved to work elsewhere. However, three issues occur to me.

    The current Crown Dependencies aren’t members of the EU, though they are part of the Customs Territory of the European Community. I don’t know why. I also don’t know whether that amounts to “neutralisation” of the problem of full access to EU markets as the post suggests. I rather suspect not, but I’m no expert in these matters. Would it be acceptable and/or practicable for an independent Scotland not be a member of the EU?

    They’re also fairly notorious tax havens, or “low taxed financial centres”. Is this an accident, or is it inevitable? Again, I don’t know. Certainly they’re agreeable places to live if you’re a hedge fund manager or international banker, but less so if you’re an average Joe. And I’m not sure that an economy based on these principles would sit well with the current aspirations of the SNP/Independence Movement.

    Finally, if Crown Dependency status is practicable, why stop at Scotland? If Shetland, for example, were to become a Crown Dependency it could keep the vast majority of oil revenues for itself. So it might be hard to argue for Crown Dependency for Scotland but not for Shetland.

    I don’t make these points as counter-arguments, but as issues to be addressed. As a statement of principle, I think this post is worth further discussion.

  7. Peter Arnott says:

    Food for serious thought

  8. Les Wilson says:

    I think such a move would be popular in Scotland, with an eye of course to a better end result.

  9. Kenny says:

    The idea of Shetland moving in this direction is highly unlikely, or at least it’s nowhere on the horizon just now. Even during the referendum, as Better Together people repeatedly tried to make it an issue, no-one in Shetland or Orkney was seriously promoting or supporting it. However, even if they did, we know they wouldn’t control substantial amounts of oil (if any) although of course Sullom Voe would still be a pretty important facility. If they want to do it, we shouldn’t dream of stopping them but I think worrying about it now is a bit silly. If you are worried about it though, the answer is simple – help to make Scotland work better for the islands. Let’s NOT turn the central belt into the Scotland’s version of London.

    I think the financial concerns are weak. A truly self-governing entity like the Isle of Man has all its own bureaucracy. We often forget that we contribute more than 8% to every part of the civil service, but relatively few of those are based in Scotland. Even just cutting out our commitments to the staff of defence, foreign affairs, the DWP and HMRC would immediately bring thousands of jobs and over £1bn of salaries into the Scottish economy. That in turn would stimulate further growth. We also contribute far more than our fair share to the “National Infrastructure Plan.” If the money we spent on things like HS2 or Crossrail were spent in Scotland instead, we could not only make radical improvements to Scotland’s infrastructure but also generate jobs in Scotland in the process. (http://wingsoverscotland.com/the-pooling-and-the-sharing/ gives a breakdown.) That’s about £10bn over the next five to ten years to be spent on infrastructure which we know has one of the highest fiscal multipliers of all government spending. That’s money we’re already spending but none of it is spent in Scotland. It disguises the fact that we pay for English infrastructure because it’s “national” but most Scottish infrastructure (like the new hospital in Glasgow or the new Forth crossing) is paid for from the block grant, which is decided by English spending, not UK spending…like the National Infrastructure Plan. It’s costs like these that never get properly teased out when we think about the economics of greater independence.

  10. 1314 says:

    Be careful what you wish for.

    Unintended consequences.

    The end justifies the means.

    Swearing fealty.

    Maybe not.

    How many of Bella’s readers would take an oath of allegiance to one person (elected or otherwise) in order to Be Allowed to take their seat in the Scottish Parliament – thereby denying the collective sovereignty of the many people who voted for them ?

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